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Prayer Meeting With Huge Crowds Should Be Treated As Prayer Hall For Public Worship Requiring Permission Under Rules: Madras High Court

Lydia Suzanne Thomas
30 April 2021 4:58 AM GMT
Prayer Meeting With Huge Crowds Should Be Treated As Prayer Hall For Public Worship Requiring Permission Under Rules: Madras High Court
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The Madras High Court on Thursday dismissed a writ petition challenging an order of the Kanyakumari District Collector prohibiting prayer meetings in a residential house. From the facts of the case, Justice N Anand Venkatesh of the Madurai Bench found that the petitioner, one T Wilson, had not been conducting private prayers in his house as he initially submitted but was holding...

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The Madras High Court on Thursday dismissed a writ petition challenging an order of the Kanyakumari District Collector prohibiting prayer meetings in a residential house.

From the facts of the case, Justice N Anand Venkatesh of the Madurai Bench found that the petitioner, one T Wilson, had not been conducting private prayers in his house as he initially submitted but was holding a full-fledged service for which permission of the District Authorities was required.

Taking exception to Wilson's suppression of this fact, the High Court declared,

"The fulcrum of any religious faith is "the truth", and no religion tolerates any act which takes a person away from the truth. In the present case, the petitioner who claims himself to be a devout Christian has travelled far away from the truth. The petitioner is to portray as if the premises is being used only for group prayers while the same is being used for huge public gatherings for public worship. It is very clear from the materials placed before this Court.

In Court, the District Collector produced photographs and other material to demonstrate that prayer meetings under a Christian Religious Trust were taking place regularly between 9 AM and 12 PM in Wilson's 'home', with the use of speakers and microphones.

Since there was a congregation gathering in Wilson's home, permissions under Rule 4(3) of The Tamil Nadu Panchayats Building Rules, 1997 and requirements under Rule 47-A for the development of land in an area other than a planning area as contemplated under The Tamil Nadu Town and Country Planning Act, 1971 needed to be obtained, it was pointed out.

Interestingly, after the Court's attention was drawn to the Rules and the large gatherings in Wilson's home, Wilson presented an undertaking affidavit before court that his building will not be used as a prayer hall for public worship.

Rejecting this stance, the Court observed that it could not repose faith in Wilson's stand since it proved the building was used as a place of public worship earlier. The judgment states,

"The fact that the petitioner has now come up with an undertaking affidavit to the effect that the building will not be used as a prayer hall for public worship only shows that it was put to such use in the past. Even though the petitioner has come up with a statement that the building will only be used for conducting prayer meetings, going by the past conduct of the petitioner, this Court is not in a position to repose any faith in him."

With this remark, the Court prohibited Wilson from conducting such prayer meetings in the future without obtaining the requisite permissions under the relevant rules.

The Bible, congregational prayer, and the essential practices doctrine

While dismissing Wilson's petition, the Court took the opportunity of exploring how the Bible portrays prayer, congregational prayer and whether the same could be restricted.

The Court pointed out that the verses from the Gospel of Matthew stressed on the personal nature of prayer.

Matthew 6:5 "And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward."
Matthew 6:6 "But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

From this, the Court opined,

"It is therefore, clear from the very text that any sort of prayer contemplated by the religion is directed only towards the father, and it is a very personal and profound connect between the father and the one who is praying."

Observing that prayer across religions is considered a profound and private bond between the person praying and the divine, the Court commented, "It can certainly not be thrown out on stage for public display, and one done that way cannot be construed as prayer in its purest forms."

From the New Testament, the Court agreeing that congregational prayer was an essential and integral practice in Christianity. However, underscoring that even a religious right is not absolute the Court pointed out that it would be subject to reasonable restrictions.

Distinguishing prayer meetings and meetings involving large gatherings, the Court explained,

"..The moment the exercise of such a right affects the rights of others, it must be subjected to reasonable restriction. The rights enjoyed by the citizens, including the fundamental rights, must co-exist in harmony. In the present case, the right of worship that is claimed by the petitioner directly impacts the rights of his neighbours, as explained in the report of the District Collector. Once the prayer meeting assumes such larger proportions resulting in public worship, attended by huge crowds, the very nature of the building changes, and it has to be construed as a prayer hall entertaining public worship. Consequently, the same would require obtaining necessary permission under the relevant rules…"

On these terms, the petition was dismissed.

CASE: T. Wilson v. The District Collector

COUNSEL: Advocate J Maria Roseline for the petitioner, Additional Advocate General Sricharan Rangarajan, assisted by Special Government Pleader K.P. Narayanakumar

Click here to download the judgment



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